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Preservation Alert: Schenley Farms/First Baptist Church

Albert M. Tannler, Historical Collections Director
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

On May 3, 2006, the City of Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission (HRC) heard testimony regarding proposed new construction to be located in the City of Pittsburgh Oakland Civic Center Historic District, on land owned by the First Baptist Church—currently a parting lot—at the end of Bigelow Blvd., between the church on the east and Ruskin Avenue on the west. The church, designed by Bertram G. Goodhue for Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson and erected 1909-11, and the area under discussion are within the Oakland Civic Center National Register and City of Pittsburgh Historic Districts.

The developer of the proposed building is the Elmhurst Group, which has leased the land from the First Baptist Church and plans to rent space primarily to Select Medical for an “acute care hospital,” as well as to other tenants. Zoning has been approved by the City of Pittsburgh, although some individuals believe that the proposed use of the property is in violation of Code section 905.03.D which applies to all land that lies within the Educational-Medical-Institutional zoning district.

Bigelow Blvd. at Bayard Street is the principle entry into Oakland from the west, passing through the center of the residential Schenley Farms National Register and City of Pittsburgh Historic Districts. The proposed building, designed by Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates Architects of Butler, Pa., and Pittsburgh, is a nine-story, 148 foot tall, 140,000 square foot hospital/medical office building with three levels of parking for 158 automobiles. The First Baptist Church is 55 feet high at the eave line, omitting the ornamental fleche; the portion of the building nearest Bayard Street, the parish house, is 22 feet to the eave line. Crawford Hall, across Ruskin Avenue, while typical of the non-contributing University of Pittsburgh buildings erected in the National Register district, is no more than 55 feet high. Only Fifth Avenue, two blocks to the south and very different in character, accommodates a few historic buildings 60 feet in height or higher, such as the Pittsburgh Athletic Association and the former Masonic Temple, in what is the axis of the early 20th-century Civic Center.

Concerned residents of Schenley Farms, who are members of the Schenley Farms Civic Association; the president of the condominium association of The Bristol on nearby Bellefield Avenue; and a representative of Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (Landmarks) testified in opposition to the proposal.

It is Landmarks’ opinion that the design in question does not meet the New Construction Design Criteria for the Oakland Civic Center Historic District with regard to scale, materials, massing, siting, and details, and would have a negative impact on the adjacent Schenley Farms Federal and City Historic Districts, and on the First Baptist Church. Landmarks does not object to erecting a building on this site; indeed Bertram Goodhue designed one for precisely this site. (That design might well be taken into account in any proposed new design proposal.) In 2003 Landmarks commissioned a schematic architectural design for this site illustrating how one might place a compatible new building next to the church. The schematic design provided for a 64,000 square foot office building with 142 parking spaces on three levels and met the new construction design criteria.

It might seem alarmist to compare this proposal to the unsuccessful attempt to build a residential tower adjacent to B. G. Goodhue’s St. Bartholomew’s Church in the 1980s or to compare the scale of the project to the Pan Am building on Park Avenue in New York City. Yet it is fair to say that the negative impact of this proposed building for this site, given its size and its design, would be as deadly as the former might have been and in this context far more damaging than the latter is. The next HRC hearing on this matter will be June 14, 2006. Comments should be addressed to:

Michael Eversmeyer
Historic Review Commission
City of Pittsburgh Department of City Planning
200 Ross Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Email comments may be sent:

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633